Choosing to Vote in Iraq

by Jonathan Wallace

The following was written a few days before the election in Iraq. The images of Iraqis weeping and celebrating as they voted were very moving. However, the press seemed, as it has so often since September 11, 2001, to be joining the government in spinning the idea that the voting, and not the violence, was the story. Being told that "only" nine fanatics wearing explosives-laden vests blew themselves up at polls, killing "only" forty people, gave interesting insights into the freedom and objectivity of the war-time press. The fact that there was less violence than everyone feared obscures but does not eliminate the question of what still needs to be done to make the elections meaningful, and democracy real, in Iraq. The New York Times reiterated this week that many of the nascent political parties approached us and asked for a delay of the election, and we refused. What was so important that it was worth the lives of forty people? Did they die for democracy or so that the U.S. could declare victory one more time?

Bridges are designed with a safety margin: they are built to be able to bear a load which is a several times greater than the actual load that they will conceivably ever have to bear. It would be nice if we could design human moral superstructure the same way, with a margin of safety; then each of us would be able to deal with choices two or three times harder than any we will actually have to make.

Almost everyone (men especially, I suppose) is a hero to himself; I long ago tired of people telling me how they would behave under circumstances they will never face. (In the Spectacle, which trades in such speculations, I try to be careful to say, "I hope I would have the courage to....")

This week, I tried to put myself in the shoes of an Iraqi on election day. Iraq has a frightened, barely present police force and army, facing a powerful, ruthless, ubiquitous insurgency. The insurgents have made it clear they will attack polling places and kill voters wherever possible. The danger is so pervasive that many candidates and poll workers have already been killed, and some of the remaining candidates are running anonymously.

I know that, as an ordinary, not very courageous human being, I would feel very fearful about going to the polls under these circumstances. On a simplistic level, it is very easy to glorify the act of voting, as one of supreme physical courage. We admire anyone tough enough to tell the insurgents to go fuck themselves, stroll calmly to the poll, pull the lever and walk home again.

However, as Plato first noted more than two thousand years ago, it is nearly impossible to draw the line between courage and foolishness. People who choose to front calculable dangers of death or maiming, in pursuit of an elevated goal which makes the risk worthwhile, will always be admirable. People who take the very same risk based on false information, or on unexamined assumptions, are merely marks or cannon fodder.

To pick an example closer to home. All of the civilians, and some of the people in uniform, who died on September 11, 2001, relied on a common but false belief that skyscrapers are safe. But a worker on or near the top floor of either tower could not evacuate the building in less than two hours assuming that he could maintain a pace of little more than one minute per floor all the way down. With congestion, people moved much more slowly than that. Conversely, the only strategy for fighting a fire at the top of the buildings, or rescuing people trapped there, was to have firefighters race up 110 floors with eighty pounds of equipment on their backs. One of the numerous intensely poignant images from that day was one reported by civilian survivors, who on their way downstairs passed winded firefighters lying in the stairwells gasping for breath.

People who build or populate towers 110 stories tall with no special provisions for evacuating workers from, or fighting fires at, the top, know, (if they are realistic about it) that if anything extraordinary happens, everybody just dies. ("What's your contingency plan?" "The contingency plan is: everybody dies.") Neither the Rockefeller who had an obsessive desire to build a tower that made no economic sense, nor the architect who complacently designed it, died there.

Iraq right now is like that 110-story burning building. We are asking Iraqis to move about normally in its passageways while we are very equivocal about fighting the fire at the top.

During training, emergency medical technicians are told, over and over, never to enter a scene which is not safe. Was a shooting reported in apartment 4G of a building on the Grand Concourse? We sit in the ambulance until the police arrive; it is their job to ensure that the perp is no longer on-scene or has been neutralized. We go in when the armed people on our side tell us that the scene has been secured. Similarly, we don't ever go into burning buildings; that's a firefighter's job. They are supposed to bring the patients out to us.

I think we could formulate a similar rule for Iraq, that no citizen should be expected to enter a polling place which cannot be made safe. There are a number of different ways to get to this result. The citizen has a relationship with the state, which involves both rights and responsibilities. The right, or, in this case, the responsibility to support democracy by voting is counter-balanced by the state's responsibility, among many others, to protect the citizen. In this week's election, the state (nascent, practically nonexistent, really) calling upon citizens to vote is not able to provide even a minimal level of protection.

"Vote," the state says, "and I will get stronger and protect you better." "That doesn't necessarily follow," the citizen might reply. "There is work you must do before I vote. You haven't even laid the groundwork. Why should I risk my life to carry out my responsibilities when you haven't performed yours? I may vote, and die, and you will fade away, and I will have died for nothing."

It is also possible to visualize the current situation as a dialog between the United States and ordinary Iraqis. "We are giving you the gift of democracy," says the U.S., "and it is your obligation to thank us for the gift by voting." To which the citizen might reply, "Your gift right now is a very mixed blessing. You are bringing me a gift of a sheep and of a lion who came out of the wilderness in pursuit of it. Since you are unwilling or unable to protect me against the lion, I will respectfully decline the gift of the sheep."

This extremely violent and murderous insurgency will not be ended by a vote; it can only be ended, and Iraq made safe, by force. Since the United States is unwilling to commit the required number of troops, and the Iraqis don't seem to have the will or the means to oppose the insurgency with equal or greater force of their own, anyone who comes out to vote is participating in an almost meaningless ritual. It is a poignantly unequal contest, in which the measures we are weakly promoting are extremely ill-suited to the actual conditions pertaining on the ground. During the years of extreme daily violence is Lebanon, I remember exactly one antiwar demonstration, where some hundreds of demonstrators were chased away within minutes by terrorists firing automatic weapons. Similarly, Hitler is said to have offered to solve Neville Chamberlain's problems in India--by shooting Mahatma Gandhi, then, if that didn't work, a few hundred more people, and then, if necessary, a few thousand more.

Democracy is only possible when conditions are stable. Democracy did not come to France until the French Revolution was dead and buried. That revolution did not create democracy; it simply swept away the prior structure which had prevented it. We haven't even completed that work in Iraq, where insurgent Sunnis and Baathists are still extremely well-armed, well financed and powerful.

As moral choices go, someone who volunteers to stand on the corner next to the polling place with an AK47 in his hand is more in control of his destiny than someone who chooses to walk to the poll unarmed.

The difference between a dead hero, and dead cannon fodder, lies in the amount of information the deceased had when he chose to risk his life. Did he make a well-informed decision, or was he tricked? No-one wants to die for the government's mere convenience in support of undisclosed, selfish goals.

Why wasn't this election postponed until Iraq was stable? Is it being held this week because democracy requires it, or the Iraqis insisted? Or so that President Bush can declare victory yet again? What will anybody killed while voting actually be dying for? All this week, the president has proudly pointed to the elections as an indication that we are succeeding in Iraq. Meanwhile, people--Iraqi and American--are dying in support of American public relations: the bogus claim that we did a job we have actually failed to do.